with series

“The serial comma, the one before and, is optional; however, usage—either with or without it—must be consistent.”

~Martha Kolln

Commas are like substitutes in this case: they stand in for the word and. What’s cool about knowing that is it gives you options. You can have a list with no commas, just ands, for emphasis, or you can have a list with all commas and no and to make it seem like it goes on and on. You even get to choose whether or not you put a comma right before and. So many choices! Plus, when you need extra separation, semicolons jump in to help the commas out.

Professional Examples

  • Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work.

~from Stephen King’s On Writing

  • And why am I coming across as an urbane, mildly ironic, endlessly affable guide to this intellectual territory, operating without intensity, generous, funny, and loose?

~from Mark Edmundson’s “On the Uses of a Liberal Education”

  • The old house on the hill wore its steep, gabled roof pulled over its ears like a low hat.

~from Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things

  • And Later became a horrible, menacing, goose-bumpy word.

~from Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things

  • As she turned the page something reached into her throat, plucked her voice out, shook it down, and returned it without its laughing edges.

~from Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things

  • I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go.

~Annie Dillard

  • Your child and your work hold you hostage, suck you dry, ruin your sleep, mess with your head, treat you like dirt, and then you discover they’ve given you that gold nugget you were looking for all along.

~from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

  • I started writing a lot in high school: journals, impassioned anti-war pieces, parodies of the writers I loved.

~from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

  • “Mr. Ewell,” Atticus began, “folks were doing a lot of running that night. Let’s see, you say you ran to the house, you ran to the window, you ran inside, you ran to Mayella, you ran for Mr. Tate. Did you, during all this running, run for a doctor?”

~from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

  • I believe there are visions that come to us only in memory, in retrospect.

~from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead

  • A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote.

~from President-elect Obama’s victory speech 11/5/08, as qtd in The New Yorker 11/17/08

  • All this time she had imagined him coming back and everything being okay, but instead Almondine was gone and here was Edgar and he was obviously not okay.

~from David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

  • “I’m so scared, John,” I told him when I could speak through my sobs. “I don’t know what’s going to happen and I’m so tired and I want to get it over with but I don’t want to make it worse and I feel so awful and I don’t know if I can handle having a baby like this and what if he’s really sick or has to have surgery or life support or what if he dies or—”

~from Martha Beck’s Expecting Adam

  • Twelve “shame categories” have emerged from my research:
    • Appearance and body image
    • Money and work
    • Motherhood/fatherhood
    • Family
    • Parenting
    • Mental and physical health
    • Addiction
    • Sex
    • Aging
    • Religion
    • Surviving trauma
    • Being stereotyped or labeled

~from Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly

How Commas Work in a Series

Item, item, and item in a sentence.

Description, description item in a sentence.

A series is simply more than one of the same thing in a row: more than one noun, verb, adjective, adverb, phrase, clause, etc. Notice in the bullet list of twelve categories above that no commas are necessary if we stack a series as a vertical list; however, when we want to string the items in a row within a sentence, we need commas or the word and between each item.

The most common form is to place an and before the last item in a series while using no and in a series of descriptions leading up to an item. However, the writer decides between a comma or a coordinating conjunction based on how he or she wants the series to be read:

  1. Using more ands (called polysyndeton style) gives more emphasis to each item in the series and can give the impression of feeling overwhelmed or rushed.
    • item and item and item and item
  2. Omitting all ands (called asyndeton style) gives more emphasis to whatever follows the series or implies that the list could go on.
    • item, item, item, item
  3. Placing a comma right before an and (called an Oxford comma or serial comma) gives more separation between the items, and slows the pace at which the list is read. This combo of comma + and can also be used throughout the list to slow down and emphasize each item.
    • item, item, item, and item
    • item, and item, and item, and item
  4. Choosing some ands and some commas gives more connection to items within the series, such as a list of people where couples are indicated by a conjunction: Bob and Ruth, Peter and Lucy, Jill and Tom, etc.

Sentence with item, detail; item, detail; and item, detail.

When a series becomes more complex, usually because of at least one parenthetical comma within at least one of the items, use semicolons instead of commas between the items.

One common instance is a list of cities and states: Springfield, Illinois; Payson, Utah; and Salem, Massachusetts. Below are two professional examples showing other usages (note that the comma in the Edmundson example doesn’t come until far into the series but still forces the entire list to use semicolons):

  • In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech.

~from Stephen King’s On Writing

  • The freshman-to-be sees photos of well-appointed dorm rooms; of elaborate phys-ed facilities; of fine dining rooms; of expertly kept sports fields; of orchestras and drama troupes; of students working alone (no overbearing grown-ups in range), peering with high seriousness into computers and microscopes; or of students arrayed outdoors in attractive conversational garlands.

~from Mark Edmundson’s “On the Uses of a Liberal Education”

Self Check

You should not have a comma before the first item in the series or after the last item. Commas should only be placed in between. To check, see if you can replace the comma with the word and. If and doesn’t make sense there, the comma might be in the wrong spot.

With semicolons, check to make sure that the semicolon is in between, as above (you should not have a semicolon at the beginning or end of the list), and also check that it marks the major divisions, not the minor ones. Stop at each semicolon and look at what comes before it to be sure that the break makes sense there.

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